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Tuesday, January 16

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Detour

In 1982, my little brother and I were surprised with a Christmas trip to Disneyworld. We were so excited by the news that we promptly shit our pants, packed up our Star Wars figures and battery-powered Pac-Man and Donkey Kong mini-arcades, and jumped into my stepfather's black van a full day before my parents were ready to leave.

Now, my memory on the experience is a little foggy, but I do remember I had two unexpected reactions to the trip. First, I recall very clearly that, at age 7, I resolutely hated Disneyworld, couldn't wait to leave, and vowed never to return.

The second thing about my Disneyworld experience was that I remember being shocked that it was in the middle of nowhere. We passed through a nondescript "Welcome to Disneyworld" archway and drove quite a ways along a winding eight-lane road that led through a forested swampy wilderness. I recall thinking, "What the hell is Disneyworld doing in the middle of this cesspool?" Honestly, it seemed trashy that the shimmering, sanitized world of Cinderella and Tinkerbell would be nestled in a swamp, but, hey, I was 7. What did I know about creating a national attraction?

Indeed, growing up I found myself consistently disappointed with the vast majority of "attractions" tucked away in "unexpected" or "scenic" locales. I could only digest so many disappointing "Mystery Spots" on subsequent family road trips before I wrote any remotely located attraction off entirely.

Ten years ago, my father moved to Madison, Wisconsin. For the last nine of those years, whenever I'd travel to and from his home, I'd look down my nose at signs for House on the Rock along the Wisconsin roadways, skeptically regarding this attraction as just another "Mystery Spot" that wasn't worth anyone's time. When people would talk to me about House on the Rock, most would only be able to describe it as "really weird" and be at a loss of words after that. So I felt justified in giving little regard.

Then in 2002, Neil Gaiman published American Gods, which I picked up immediately. Imagine my surprise in finding that House on the Rock plays such a pivotal role in the story:

Everywhere was the sound of music: jangling, awkward music, ever so slightly off the beat and out of time... "Forty years ago Alex Jordan... began to build a house on a high jut of rock he did not own, and even he could not have told you why. And people came to see him build it — the curious, and the puzzled, and those who were neither and who could not honestly have told you why they came. So he did what any sensible American male of his generation would do: he began to charge them money — nothing much. A nickel each, perhaps. Or a quarter. And he continued building, and the people kept coming.

So he took those quarters and nickels and made something even bigger and stranger. He built these warehouses on the ground beneath the house, and filled them with things for people to see, and then the people came to see them.

I was intrigued: based on Mr. Gaiman's extensive descriptions of the place, the House on the Rock had quite a bit more to offer than I had assumed. I decided to visit it.

After a three-hour drive up I-90 from Chicago, I arrived at 3:30pm. It closed at 5pm. The salesperson indicated that the two-and-a-quarter mile tour would take about three hours — the obvious implication being that there was no way I'd complete the tour before attraction was closed. I decided against the visit and went to the men's room to relieve myself before setting out for home.

The men's room was nothing shy of creepy. Models of late-1800s sailing ships adorned the walls entering the men's room and were also above the sinks. The urinals were watched over by a hungry pack of taxidermied varmints — badgers, squirrels, house cats and the like — gathered in a darkened and cavernous display behind a sheet of Plexiglas on the far wall. The juxtaposition was unsettling. And very intriguing.

Fifteen minutes later, I was deep within the "Mill House," the first "room" of the 14-room compound and had lost myself amid the dim, musty organicism of its winding stone walls, the queer off-key music of the coin-operated self-playing orchestras nestled in recessed coves throughout the Mill House, and the '50s/'60s flavor of the dusty architectural details therein. Not only was the Mill House a wholly unique architectural achievement (think Yoda's hut pierced by a Frank Lloyd Wright erection), but it also housed a bizarre assortment of wooden Indians, religious icons (Christian and Eastern), glass paper-weights and a seemingly endless supply of crumbling ancient books.

As I progressed through the exhibit, I found that it transitioned roughly from the imaginative Mill House to a warehoused re-creation of a three-quarters scale 19th Century Main Street, aptly titled "the Streets of Yesterday." The transitions defied reason, and honestly the sheer volume of objects I was seeing in both places overwhelmed me — the groupings were logical in some cases, utterly nonsensical in others. And I was amazed that, according to the crude map I was provided, the tour couldn't have been more than a third complete.

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I continued through the exhibits on autopilot for a little while, coming finally to a narrow hallway leading up to something called "Heritage of the Sea." Lining the inclined blue hallway were scale models of 19th Century sailing ships in recessed glass cases. One of the models crudely depicted a whaling ship battling a massive, many-fanged whale — which itself was being dragged under by a pink octopus. The whale was easily twice the size of the ship and its ferociousness was surprisingly palpable given the model's scale. I found its placement in the attraction very curious: up until this point, though the Mill House itself was an original fabrication, the objects and models it and the other previous exhibits contained were recognizable as having been functional in daily life. Here, strangely, was a representation of monsters and because of its fantastical nature it seemed out of place. At this point, though, I had begun to grow accustomed to shrugging off the incongruities of the collection, and after a moment's confusion I continued onward.

The Heritage of the Sea room is an immense cavern containing what I can only describe as a massive, four-story fiberglass reproduction of the toothy whale being attacked by the octopus (they left out the sailing ship — for reasons of space, I'm sure). It lunges fiercely up from the frothy sea, scattering countless tiny white seagulls suspended from wires overhead, desperately trying to leap from the octopus's tentacles. Its staggering scale would give even the largest of blue whales an inferiority complex. The literature indicates the sculpture is longer than the Statue of Liberty is tall, and I would add that it has to be at least half as high. The room itself can barely contain it — the energy of the thing rages all around you, and the very walls seem ready to be shattered by the struggle. I was completely astounded and utterly delighted.

As I ran panting up the gantry spiraling four stories up the perimeter of the room to the gaping maw of the whale, I was serenaded by an especially unsettling rendition of the Beatles' "An Octopus's Garden" — as performed by another of the attraction's quirky automaton orchestras, it seemed closer to Tom Waits's The Black Rider than to anything on Abbey Road. I felt like it sullied the experience a little — honestly, to me, swelling strings and the heralding of an angelic choir seemed better suited to the affair. But this was House on the Rock, after all, and at this point I had accepted that queer juxtapositions were simply par for the course.

When I crested the ramp and met the whale head-on, it was announced that House on the Rock was closing and I was asked to leave. Disappointed, I acquiesced and drove home.

I returned last month to finish what I had begun. I persuaded my boyfriend to join me for a weekend with my family in Madison, and as part of the trip we agreed we should go to House on the Rock. I had advertised the attraction as a highly unusual and unsettling experience and had several times eagerly regaled him with my incomplete experience.

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Maybe it was his background — a Masters in Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — that prompted us to think this way, but on this visit we didn't just regard House on the Rock with the idle curiosity one reserves for an "attraction" and ask to be entertained. We found ourselves constantly questioning what we were seeing — did the arrangement of objects have a higher purpose? Were we meant to be amused, or was the creator of this place trying to convey some deeper meaning on us?

With a cavalcade of rooms reaching far beyond those first few in depth and scope, and a myriad of objects housed in each, it's hard to know. Again: the juxtapositions are unsettling and often intense throughout. In the presence of "The World's Largest Carousel," aside from the fact that not a horse appears in the prancing menagerie on the massive spinning platform, a fleet of angels swirls overhead — winged female mannequins that, I think, date from the '60s and '70s, wearing suggestive cocktail dresses that barely conceal their smooth breasts and carrying long, thin gold trumpets — and the walls opposite the carousel teem with even more animals waiting to be included in the swirling celebration on the merry-go-round. (This is all, again, accompanied by brassy music from one of the attraction's many automaton orchestras.)

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Truly, while all of the rooms have overt themes ("The Music of Yesterday," "The Spirit of Aviation," "The Doll House Building" and so on), the most interesting collections are those that are cramped, crowded, and overloaded with often-conflicting images. "The Transportation Building" and "The Spirit of Aviation" room, for example, both offer more focused fare (though, in addition to classic cars, the Transportation Building does offer a giant Rube Goldberg contraption as well as a functional soda fountain and a beer and pizza parlor), but in so doing offer collections that simply aren't as interesting.

We were overwhelmed by our tour. We took in so much — I can't possibly tell you how many objects and machines we observed in the many installations offered by the attraction, but I am convinced that they number well into the tens of thousands. Even after the surreal majesty of "The Organ Room" (several organs floating on platforms suspended high above the floor of a room populated also by boilers and pipes and various odd electrical components) and the staggering number of artifacts plied onto viewers in "The Weapons Room," "The Oriental Room," "The Armor Collection," and "The Crown Jewel Collection," the final room managed to surprise and amaze (not to mention disturb) us.

"The Cannon Building," as it is called, does contain a massive cannon — it might be ideal for quieting the Sea Monster so many rooms earlier. But what is remarkable about this final room is that it is truly fantastical and frightening in nature, whereas the rooms that preceded it, from the Music of Yesterday forward, possessed both greater focus (comparatively speaking) and more mundane, obvious, functional objects. The Cannon Building contains two many-layered carousels that, while too small for human occupancy, are still colossal in scale. The more memorable of these is adorned with eerily beautiful porcelain dolls and human-scaled nymphs and demons. And then, high above, hanging close to the ceiling, raging up from Hell itself, ride the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — each figure astride his steed, brandishing his weapon high in one hand and gripping a clutch of severed human heads dripping ghastly thick gobbets of bloody flesh in the other. After a cavalcade of antiquities and novelties (often one and the same), it's a startling note to end on. I think it's the most powerful and unsettling of the symbols in the place — that we should travel through so much fantasy and wonderment, colored by whimsical music, only to end at the Four Horsemen... Clearly it's here that I think its creator, Alex Jordan, is making his statement. But is he saying that after a life of so much idle fancy we will not escape the Judgments of Our Sins? I find that difficult to believe, looking on these terrifying models of destruction and death. There's a kind of senseless, random cruelty that infects these representations of Hell's fury — one that, I think, exceeds any reasonable concept of Judgment. Perhaps, then, this is a commentary about the very cruelty of Fate itself?

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On the way home, my boyfriend and I wondered aloud if House on the Rock is best enjoyed with an unironic mind that doesn't attempt to determine whether it is a shambly museum, an unsettling yet delightful amusement park, or a two-and-a-quarter-mile long art installation that challenges our notions of endurance and sanity — but still we couldn't help from posing ourselves with that very question. We kept wondering if Mr. Jordan was driven by a higher purpose through the House's long evolution beginning in the '40s and on well into the '90s. Did it suffice that this place was merely the work of an eccentric mind, or was it a work of art? Could it have been both?

What I do know is that, unlike Disney's commercial installations in Florida and Southern California, Mr. Jordan offers up a feast of stimuli without an overarching sense of order or meaning, and nowhere are you instructed to think a certain way about what you are seeing. There are no white museum placards, and there is no catchy, morally demonstrative theme music that explains it all away. And, perhaps most unsettlingly, there is no clear distinction in Mr. Jordan's exhibit between ordinary life and the extraordinary. Disney's exhibits of lurid colors and shiny plastic are clearly demarcated from the confines of the everyday. House on the Rock, conversely, offers us many of the mundane but beautiful trappings of ordinary lives, but it infects them with strange placement and giant whales, and even Riders of the Storm. Where Disney claims to offer us American Dreams, House on the Rock offers us something that, while deeply surreal, is more essentially American: it's ambitious, trashy, exhilarating, scary and delightful. It's unfiltered and defies easy explanation. And they even sell beer.

~*~

House on the Rock is about 200 miles north of Chicago in Wisconsin between Dodgeville and Spring Green. That's a little more than a three-hour drive. Admission is $19.50 for adults and $10.50 for children over the age of four. They have seasonal hours, so it's best to check the website or call ahead (608-935-3639) before going. There are accommodations in the immediate vicinity, but I recommend staying in Madison, which is itself a worthy destination. The place is a little dusty, so if you have allergies be warned! Finally, lest you should be totally unprepared for your experience, Flickr currently offers more than 1,000 photos of the attraction.

 

About the Author(s)

Brandon Heckman does all sorts of neat things while living in Chicago, and often travels to Wisconsin (among other places).

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